On Poetry, Editors & the Pushcart Award

I don’t trust awards, and usually just roll my eyes when someone mentions they’re a Pushcart nominee. Every poet, it seems, has been nominated for a Pushcart Award. And if they haven’t, it’s probably just because they don’t kiss enough ass, or have a poetry zine of their own to return the favor. It has almost nothing to do with the quality of the work. Merit doesn’t get you very far in the poetry world of 2019. Look in the most prestigious zines. They all have one thing in common. The poems they publish, almost without exception, are sloppy, amateurish, pure dung if I’m totally honest. What were the editors thinking, you ask. The answer? Often, it’s the poet’s name or reputation that gets him or her published. Often the editors have their own self-interest in mind. And just as often it’s that the editors, being perhaps highly intelligent, perhaps masterful essayists, or journalists, or documenters of hard and concrete fact, flail as poets and as editors of poetry because the je ne sais quoi that’s required for that most unique of arts is just not in them. And most times they don’t even know it.

In a word, they’re in the wrong field.

They were supposed to be software engineers, or doctors, or historians, or math teachers. Instead they’re fumbling with dactyls and sestinas. It’s like if I were suddenly called upon to be judge of a synchronized swimming competition and imagined myself an expert, despite never having done it myself, or knowing what to look for, let alone the rules. Poetry is different from all other forms of writing in that it requires an inborn talent that can’t be taught.

In every endeavor but poetry, people with no natural gift can still succeed by diligent study of an art; but in poetry, no one who lacks the natural gift can possibly succeed through art.” ~ Vico

And yet it takes the eye of an artist to be a good judge of it, and most editors, not having that eye, can only look at grammar, punctuation, sentence construction, the broadness of vocabulary, or what they themselves are capable of to distinguish the good from the bad. So what follows is mediocrity publishing mediocrity, and the stuff that bucks the trend or goes beyond the bounds of common understanding (and not just for the sake of wackiness) being overlooked or ignored altogether.

Vico makes another wise and thought-provoking observation when he says,

The sublimest task of poetry is to attribute sense and emotion to insensate objects.

Borne out of this thought, I have to believe – given Vico’s huge influence on James Joyce – was Joyce’s famous line,

Any object, intensely regarded, may be a gate of access to the incorruptible eon of the gods.

Which is not so different from W.C. Williams’ famous and much debated line, “No ideas but in things,” or what he was getting at with his red wheelbarrow poem.

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

In other words, so much depends on the use of objects to enforce ideas and call up vivid images in the reader’s mind. Ezra Pound invented a word for this. He called it phanopoeia, and you would think the word would be somewhere in the minds of our most esteemed and highly-paid editors, but I have my doubts, so many of the images called up in the poems published in their mags being a fuzzy and confusing jumble of pabulum.

But back to what I was saying about the Pushcart Award.

There are so many 1000s of poetry journals out there, and so many 1000s of Pushcart nominations doled out every year, usually (I imagine) to friends of the editors or people the editors hope will return the favor, that it’s hard to take too much pride in being nominated. But since I am a writer and not an editor, have no clout, and nothing to give, and am not particularly popular in social media, it feels just a little better that the editors at Red Fez – one of my favorite lit zines by the way, and a long-lasting one too – saw fit to nominate an inconsequential scrub like me for my poem about Key West. I do not expect to win the award. In fact, I know I won’t. But sometimes, I take a break from my novel and write a little poem and send it in, and it’s good to know people appreciate it.

Bone Island Elegy

The first time I visited Key West
was over thirty years ago, and I’ve been back
almost once a year ever since.

There’s something about the place
that keeps sucking me in. Something in the glow
of the bright, emerald-green
waters;
something in the salt
winds, and bleached conch
shells washed up in the sands;

and in the shadows of the coconut palms
and the dreams of the derelicts sleeping under them.

It’s a kind of mysticism,
but not without a touch of deep,
raw, almost palpable melancholy,
which is always there.

But you feel it most late at night,
after all the bars have closed,
after the music’s gone out to sea.

A faint, almost imperceptible trembling
in the silence of the island.

Something breathing,
something alive but in great pain.
Something that never sleeps because it can’t.

Its breath cuts into you.
The ocean bounds you on all sides.
The nerve opens.

Maybe it’s all those Indian bones
under the island
or a warning signal of some ancient prophesy.

Or maybe it’s just the curse of beauty.
That soft curse
that lets you know
you’ve found it,
you are someplace precarious and holy.

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35 thoughts on “On Poetry, Editors & the Pushcart Award

  1. I would give you the prize (provided you have one for me too!)

    But I seriously like your poem.
    Its breath cuts into you.
    The ocean bounds you on all sides.
    The nerve opens.

    The situation you are describing is like using Language teachers to choose literature for a magazine. They just don’t have a clue.

    • I would definitely have one for you, B. You know I love your poetry.

      Glad you like my poem. It means a lot!

      And you are totally right about language teachers. Academics can rarely be trusted…. I think being in the school system all their lives ruins them. Which is why I’m thankful I come from the blue collar world.

      • I love this poem. I love everything you write actually.

        I’m with you on everything you said above. We do need appreciation but sometimes, let’s face it, you know your work is good but it doesn’t get chosen because lots of editors like pretentious elitist poetry. Simple as that.

      • Thank you so much for your kind words, Bojana. Alway appreciated. And you are so right about ‘pretentious elitist poetry,’ though I wouldn’t mind so much if it was that and at least good. 99/100 it’s just pretentious shit. It just looks good if you don’t know anything.

      • There’s lots of good poetry out there, but sometimes I read sth and I’m like – wtf?!
        I started sending my stuff to lit journals, and many times my best things are turned down. It should tell us sth, really about my work (because I’ve been writing long enough to know what’s good and what’s average), but the kind of people who decide on what’s worth publishing/reading.

      • Some places I submit to consistently take the worst in the batch; others consistently reject me. I don’t take it personally anymore. It just tells me something. The editors are fucking idiots. I’ve been writing and submitting too long to believe otherwise.

      • I think that, since in many of the academic professions you have to apply rules and use facts, if you stop feeding the creative side of your mind, one day you can’t understand what a poem is, or how literature works. Who knows, maybe you even stop appreciating music.

        From personal experience, I can say that people with a degree may be ‘learned’ but it doesn’t mean they are cultivated. There are exceptions, surely.

      • I agree wholeheartedly with you. Sure there are exceptions, but most of the time I suspect the creative part of people’s brains just croaks when they enter the halls of Academia. It’s not good! It’s even worse that these people are in charge of the most highly touted journals.

      • Besides, academic people need to preserve the paradigm. It’s what pays them, and every novelty is a threat.

        Journal editors may very well be envious of anyone they suspect can bring something new in writing — while they themselves weren’t able to do it.

        And there are many misconceptions about who can do what. Here in Trikala I saw a call for a literary contest. The critics, it said, would be known local philologists. I’m not sure we use ‘philologist’ in the same way — in Greece it simply means that you are a language teacher working in secondary or high school, who also ‘teaches’ literature and poetry. From my experience as a student, these teachers didn’t know the first thing about literature. I never heard one original thought from them, one original analysis. Maybe it was the educational system’s fault. After all, school is not supposed to make you think outside the box. It’s here to make you part of the flock. An original analysis of a work of art may have caused trouble to a teacher (Mum, the teacher read us a poem today that said there is no god — What? I’m referring him/her to the ministry of education!). But I’m mostly inclined to think it wasn’t fear that stopped from expressing originality — just their own inability.

        In other words: language teachers are not and cannot be literary critics.

      • I couldn’t agree more with what you say here. There are some things you can only reach by going your own way… school system will never get you there. I have a hard time believing Van Gogh would’ve painted the way he did if he hadn’t sifted things out himself. The problem with most academics is that they want so much to put names on things that can’t be named, and that’s exactly what limits them, and forms the box. It’s often best to go with your intuition and not overanalyze so much. What you say about envy makes me want to put in bold print what I said about about academics (and many poetry editors) only seeing what they themselves are capable of. It’s a terrible thing!

      • It is. When I was younger and more idealistic, I used to believe that artists in general wouldn’t be petty, that they’d value art more than their egos. I was wrong, of course, so now I’m a cynic!

      • Not a cynic, just a truth-teller. Petty is definitely the word. It comes from some inner-cowardice. It’s rare that you meet a poet that’s not disgusting coward. I generally try to steer clear.

      • Ha ha! Yes, truth-teller is more like it.

        It takes some courage to admit someone is better or as good as you, and to also realize that they are not doing it as an insult to you. Instead of trying to ‘bury’ them, be better.

        And of course there is the issue of those conformist ‘artists’ who don’t want to read anything about the troubles and diversity of real life. Poems should be only about spring, sunsets and romantic love with a ‘religious’ hue. Anything different is vulgar, obviously.

      • I don’t know. I think there’s something to be said for the academic who doesn’t feel comfortable in academia, which are quite a few of us. I would not hazard to say I deserve to be an editor of poetry or a judge. But I do think I’ve practiced the art of getting the heart(s) of a poem or a novel long enough to try and engage others in reading and thinking, even if they are the mathematician or neurologist. Even these students should be encouraged to read and think. And sure, I guess that doesn’t mean they aren’t to be trusted… but then neither are non-academics, if for different reasons.
        I’m also not sure if I agree with the view you proffer of Key West with your poem… To me, that particular island raises in me memories of tourism, hedonism, good times, but not enough soul. The soul has been buried beneath the ground, as you say. There is very little redeeming factor in the beauty that surrounds this island, though I guess one could say that the nature and the history are not to be blamed for the people that visit that space today- and maybe I have a faulty memory of that space, since I couldn’t imagine you there either. I almost feel like you’re writing about another one of the keys.
        But I actually wanted to say that I agree with your view on poetry and liked what Joyce and the others had to say about it as well.

  2. This entire essay is exactly right… I proudly join the chorus of those saying “ditto!” About issues as complex as artistic judgment, it’s a marvel how similar our views can be, without any overt attempt to “coordinate our perspectives”: it’s like we’re born with the same faith; or, better yet, the same knowing. I love the quotes and your use of them very much. Vico is always fresh: he seems newer than the present. And I’ve read and re-read Ulysses but that beautiful sentence you shared here apparently escaped my attention; I had to seek out its source (from admiration): it just goes to show how much splendor that super-novel holds, that wisdom like THIS can blend in with the surrounding gems.

    And I’m glad you mention WCW in a thoughtful light, because I learned to love him after reading his weird books (Kora in Hell; Spring and All; The Descent of Winter; The Great American Novel — the ones collected in the volume called “IMAGINATIONS” edited by Webster Schott, which serves as my personal WCW bible); however, there’s a version of WCW that is taught in the schools, that THAT Williams is one I would never have liked (by the way, I like what you say about what you quoted from him here, and I agree with your take); so how a reader feels about WCW will depend to a large extent on who is framing the selection of his work; and in your own volume Hallucinogenic Dragonfly Intermezzo you have that poem “It’s All Academic” where you repeatedly mention Williams in what I take to be a jocose way; and I understood exactly what you were getting at, when I first read your piece: I feel quite the same about a certain presentation of him; but I always wondered if you really and truly saw him only from that angle, or if your poem’s speaker was one of many possible ironic masks (I assumed the latter); and now I have my answer: you clearly grasp that he’s not only the fad plaything of fad professors. So now I can exhale. (I’d been holding my breath for many months.) I know I shouldn’t care so much about others liking exactly the stuff that I like, but it feels so much better when my views match with yours than when our views differ. And I hope you take it as a compliment that I care intensely about your own opinion, when I couldn’t care less about the opinion of 90% of the “higher ed” world.

    & regarding the Pushcart (so much depends/ upon// that goddamned/ Pushcart), I’m cheering for you, even tho I agree that all such prizes are shrug-worthy. I think it’s truly exciting that you are nominated. If these awards are going to start meaning anything, poets like you MUST start getting nominated and winning. So if you win, I’ll be overjoyed: it will be genuinely exciting, that Pushcart actually made the right call: “Perhaps this portends a renaissance,” I’ll shout! So, when, regarding the idea that you might win, you humbly declare “I know I won’t,” I say that you already DID, in the only reality that matters: ETERNITY (“the incorruptible eon of the gods”). So if Pushcart Press drops the ball, I will personally take legal action against this dimension.

    • Knowing your appreciation of both Joyce and Vico, Bryan, I KNEW you’d appreciate those quotes. I’m surprised you didn’t know the Joyce one. I rarely get anything Joycean past yer purview. I think I originally heard it from Joseph Campbell and never forgot it.

      As for W.C. Williams, I’ve heard you mention him before, and I too have a great appreciation for his poetry… especially given what I learned after absorbing his ‘no idea but in things’ line. When I wrote the All Academic poem, however, I think I brought him up because I was annoyed by how he’s so revered in academic circles. Again and again, when I read an interview by some poet who’s been in the university/school too long, the name WCW gets brought up, and it makes me suspect. He’s good, don’t get me wrong, but I can think of about 20 others I prefer. Though maybe I read the wrong thing… I never read his weird books. Based on what you say, I’ll make it a point to get back to him one day. The book I read was a best of poetry collection, if I recall properly. The book’s in FLA.

      Thanks for your well-wishes on the Pushcart & thanks for stopping by, Amigo!

  3. “a fuzzy and confusing jumble of pabulum”
    I am no authority on the subject of poetry. Some poems I get, many I don’t. Isn’t the whole crux of poetry to cook up a storm in a few words? Intoxicate me with the foam, the essence, the perfume and nectar of the poet’s imagination and emotion and embalm me in the sticky syrup of unforgettable words.
    Don’t belittle yourself Mein Herr, Bone Island Elegy deserves a win.

    • You say that beautifully, Good Sir. It reminds me of Seneca’s which relates to the creation of that storm. ‘For whether we agree with the Greek poet that ‘Sometimes it is sweet to be mad,’ or with Plato that ‘A sound mind knocks in vain at the doors of poetry,’ or with Aristotle that ‘No great intellect has ever been without a touch of madness,’ only a mind that is deeply stirred can utter something noble and beyond the power of others.’

  4. I love the vitriol in this and your point about that je ne sais quoi factor. I once read a few poems my John Updike, a novelist I admire, and I was amazed at how ordinary the poems were and how he did not know that.
    Congratulations, the poem is certainly worthy, it stands on its own, prize or no prize.

    • Thanks for your words, sdtp33. What you say about Updike is perfect. There are A LOT of brilliant novelists out there who the doors of poetry are closed to, and vice versa. The key is to ‘Know thyself’ and not end up in a field you don’t belong.

  5. Well said. I turned my back on the giddy mass of gurning hopefuls 30 years ago. Now I simply curate my own little junk shop blog. And read.
    Every time I see or hear one of my former confreres bloviating in the media I recite Cyrano’s ‘Non, Merci’ speech under my breath and smirk.
    I like your work.

  6. You are so talented! I felt that poem like the pull of a tide.
    I collect rejections and I expect to collect more! I never know what will connect with someone, but I do notice a lot of fluffy, mediocre stuff clogging all the streams and feeds. There’s a deep sadness I feel about it, it stares back at me, leering, ridiculing me for trying to write something authentic, honest or serious.

  7. I’m not a poet, I write prose but the same basic point applies. I have also been nominated for a pushcart, The stoy nominated had been rejected several times by different magazines. What does it all tell us?
    People have different tastes.

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